Consciousness. It's what we are and know, since reality doesn't exist for us if we can't experience it. Yet it's also the most mysterious thing in the cosmos.
So mysterious, it can't really be called a "thing." Consciousness is utterly subjective. But without consciousness we wouldn't be aware of objective reality. So go figure...
David Chalmers has done a lot of figuring on this subject. He's an Australian philosopher who specializes in the philosophy of mind/consciousness. I've had his book, "The Conscious Mind," sitting unread on my bookshelf for over a decade.
A few days ago I picked it up, stimulated by a mention in another book of how Chalmers doesn't see consciousness capable of being explained by materialism. As soon as I started reading it I realized why it had remained unread for so long: it's freaking dense.
Also, freaking interesting.
And the latter freakiness overwhelmed the former for me. So I've happily made my way through the first four chapters, even proudly skimming the sections in this Oxford University Press book marked with an asterisk -- a "philosophically technical" warning.
Chalmers obviously is brilliant (Rhodes Scholar, bachelor's degree in mathematics and computer science, doctorate in philosophy, etc. etc.). His writing is crisp and clear, though heavily intellectual. Not surprising, since I believe "The Conscious Mind" is based on his doctoral thesis.
His approach to consciousness appeals to me. I've been interested in mysticism and meditation for about forty years. I also admire science, and logically rigorous ways of looking upon reality.
Chalmers strikes a pleasing philosophical middle ground for people like me who are attracted to the mystery of consciousness, yet don't want to embrace unprovable faith-based religious, mystical, spiritual, or New Age'y dogmas.
He says that "a being is conscious if there is something it is like to be that being." It's the subjective side of reality. (Almost the same as "awareness," though awareness has more of a functional connotation, since being aware allows us to do stuff -- including reporting what we're aware of.)
Over and over, Chalmers emphasizes the difference between explaining how consciousness works in the brain and what consciousness is. Thus there is an "easy," though still difficult, problem of consciousness, and the "hard" problem.
How does the brain process environmental stimulation? How does it integrate information? How do we produce reports on internal states? These are important questions, but to answer them is not to solve the hard problem: Why is all this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life?
Zombies are frequently used by philosophers to explore this question. These aren't the stumbling creatures dressed in rags who scare us in horror movies. They're theoretical beings who are identical to us in every fashion, except they lack inner experience.
Every atom of their bodies is just like ours. They act just like us. They're objectively indistinguishable from us. But a zombie lacks consciousness.
How, then, is it possible to say that consciousness is explainable in a materialistic fashion if a zombie is 100% physically and behaviorally identical to a human being, yet lacks an experience of being a zombie, that something it is like Chambers spoke of above?
At first I had trouble getting my mind around this zombie thought experiment. Wouldn't consciousness be necessary to understand that the zombies being studied lacked consciousness? So there couldn't be a complete zombie world, right?
With more reading I began to grasp the philosophical difference between a conceivable reality and a possible reality. Zombies who are just like us but lack conscious experience are conceivable, though almost certainly not possible.
Along the same line, Chalmers talks about how God (hypothetically, obviously) could have created the universe just as it is, yet without consciousness.
So in a much more sophisticated way than I'm relating here, he presents a persuasive argument that consciousness isn't produced by materiality or an integral aspect of it. It is an extra that "God" would have had to add-on in addition to physical matter/energy.
No explanation given wholly in physical terms can ever account for the emergence of conscious experience.
...It will ultimately be given in terms of the structural and dynamical properties of physical processes, and no matter how sophisticated such an account is, it will yield only more structure and dynamics. While this is enough to handle most natural phenomena, the problem of consciousness goes beyond any problem about the explanation of structure and function, so a new sort of explanation is needed.
David Chalmers doesn't claim to have a final answer to the problem of consciousness, just some reasonable guidelines for how to approach it.
His basic thesis is "naturalistic dualism." By dualism, Chalmers means there are both physical and nonphysical features of the world, with consciousness being nonphysical. Naturalistic, though, means nonphysical can't be equated with supernatural, spiritual, mystical, or such.
The arguments do not lead us to a dualism such as that of Descartes, with a separate realm of mental substance that exerts its own influence on physical processes. The best evidence of contemporary science tells us that the physical world is more or less causally closed: for every physical event, there is a physical sufficient cause. If so, there is no room for a mental "ghost in the machine" to do any extra causal work.
I need to finish "The Conscious Mind" to learn more about what consciousness might be, if not physical. I do know that Chalmers posits that consciousness could be a fundamental aspect of reality, not reducible to anything else, just as "electric charge" is in physics.
(See this video interview with Chalmers; click on "physical theory" won't do the job to go to the relevant section.)
Chalmers suggests that there are deeper laws of nature, or principles, which connect physical processes to experience. Information might play a key role here. Thus there is more to consciousness than physical goings-on in the brain, but this "more" is natural, not supernatural.
It is psychophysical.
Like the fundamental laws of physics, psychophysical laws are eternal, having existed since the beginning of time. It may be that in the early stages of the universe there was nothing that satisfied the physical antecedents of the laws, and so no consciousness, although this depends on the nature of the laws.
In any case, as the universe developed, it came about that certain physical systems evolved that satisfied the relevant conditions. When these systems came into existence, conscious experience automatically accompanied them by virtue of the laws in question. Given that psychophysical laws exist and are timeless, as naturalistic dualism holds, the evolution of consciousness poses no special problem.
Again, these laws would tell us how experience arises from physical processes. Chalmers doesn't say that consciousness exists apart from material atoms and energy, which for humans is the brain. Rather, there is a lawful relationship between physical processes and conscious experience.
Though this might sound uninspiring to some people attracted to mysticism and meditation (such as me), Chalmers leaves open the possibility that "pure consciousness" of some sort could be experienced by us humans.
(Click on "pure contentless consciousness" in the above-mentioned video index.)
Here's a ten minute You Tube video which provides a good overview of Chalmer's philosophical take on consciousness. A Scientific American piece byChalmers also is well worth reading.
Download Scientific American Chalmers article